A Land Without People, and a People Without History? Making the Local Visible Again

Oil Pipelines near Abadan 1950's Credit: Dmitri Kessel
Oil Pipelines near Abadan 1950’s
Credit: Dmitri Kessel
Author: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University 
[ From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)” ]

The privileging of macro scales and meta-narratives of modernization and the nation state in the historiography of oil have tended to silence the lived experiences of subalterns, local populations, and the working people in the oil complex, or has reduced them to mere footnotes of ‘the real history’ of modernization, diffusion, nation state, and industrial development. This discursive maneuver has been a common feature of the modernization narrative in its many guises, with rendering the landscape and the people living on it as irrelevant.
The privileging of macro scales and meta-narratives of modernization and the nation state in the historiography of oil have tended to silence the lived experiences of subalterns, local populations, and the working people in the oil complex, or has reduced them to mere footnotes of ‘the real history’ of modernization, diffusion, nation state, and industrial development. This discursive maneuver has been a common feature of the modernization narrative in its many guises, with rendering the landscape and the people living on it as irrelevant.
Eric Wolf showed that the recurring theme of “land without people, and a people without history” had been essential to the maintenance and justification of western colonial domination from the end of 15th century, as well as of settler colonization of the so called frontiers in the Americas, Asia, and Africa68. In Iran, this recurring theme of an exotic and empty land lying wasteful and unused by unproductive natives was a regular feature of the vast and informative literature produced by successive European (mostly British) adventurers, explorers, missionaries, spies, soldiers, scholars, diplomats, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists from 19th century onward (chapters 3, 6)[69]. It was also a theme readily adopted by Iranian nationalists, and later on by policymakers and development planners, to pave the way for the modernization of the country and especially of Khuzestan, by imposing a succession of vast development projects, including railroads, dams, agribusinesses, petrochemical complexes, sugar cane plantations, and so on, with enormous social and environmental consequences[70].

The theme of ‘land without people’ resonated in Khuzestan with its ample river water resources, fertile soil, rich petroleum deposits, agrarian and mobile pastoralist populations, and proximity to open sea routes, especially when these economic potentials were juxtaposed to the supposed paucity of the history of its current ‘inferior’ inhabitants. These were themes that were constantly stressed in the European scholarly and travelling literatures of the 19th and early 20 centuries, even as the authors steeped in the romanticism of the Victorian era, and reinforced with the positive knowledge of the new scientific field of archeology, waxed lyrical about the ancient imperial legacy of the region and its surviving monuments: “The Bakhtiyaris are entirely ignorant of their own history, they are devoid of legends and traditions of any kind, lacking the romance and folklore of other mountain people” wrote Elizabeth McBean Ross, a “lady doctor” who spent a year among the Bakhtiyari in Dehkord, which she called “a dreary little townlet in the midst of a desolate district”, before succumbing to typhoid while serving in a hospital in Serbia during WWI[71]. However, the story was a bit more complicated than presented in this narrative, as Khuzestan’s history had never developed in isolation from the larger world, and its current state was the result continued entanglement with it. Likewise, the notion of ‘an empty land’ is an ideational construct of the observer, rather than an objective reflection of an existing reality (chapters 3, 6)[72]. Thus, the relevant question becomes not so much whether the land was without people, but more pertinently, who constructed the image of the empty land, and for what purpose? Here I will first provide a brief long-term history of the province’s landscape and population, as one of entanglement with the larger world beyond its provincial borders[73]. I will then analyze the role and motivations of the technical professional experts who authored this narrative and reproduced it as a discourse, especially as it related to the establishment of the oil complex in Khuzestan.
When oil was discovered in 1908 the river island of Abadan was populated by date farmers, fisherman, and sheepherders who lived in several villages across the flat and sandy stretch of silt land below the confluence of the major Mesopotamian rivers Tigris, Euphratus, Karun, and Bahmanshir. The latter initially had been a large canal excavated in pre-Islamic period to open an alternative channel to the Persian Gulf. Thus Abadan is an artificial island, similar to the ancient city of Shushtar, whose geography was shaped by the great irrigation engineering and water works carried out mostly under the Sasanids (224-651 CE) for whom Khuzestan was a major source of irrigated food crop production. By the early 20th century the Province’s ecology and demography had changed drastically, and was even renamed as Arabestan. Although it now lied at the periphery of Iranian political and economic life, nevertheless Khuzestan was always considered by whichever central government was in power as integral to its national territory, especially given its strategic importance as a border region to the Persian Gulf and Ottoman Mesopotamia. Sasanians (224- 651 CE) had built great irrigation works across Mesopotamia and Khuzestan, primarily for grain production. But these vast networks of canals and dykes lacked a proper drainage system that would have been too costly to build, and probably were beyond the era’s technical abilities. Soil drainage was not as critical for agricultural productivity further upland, around Dezful and Shushtar where the land had a higher gradient and better natural drainage. But further south below Ahvaz, where the slope decreased and the silty flatlands stretched toward the Persian Gulf, poor drainage significantly affected soil quality. Overtime the problem reached a critical scale, as a result of large-scale irrigation schemes, especially around the major rivers and their tributaries.
Political upheavals and warfare made labor mobilization and maintenance work increasingly difficult. These problems were exacerbated by the failure to maintain a proper crop rotation and fallow schedule, and led to further land degradation. By the 9th century the lower reaches of the river networks were waterlogged and the topsoil had turned too saline for the shallow roots of many grain crops, and consequently lost its former productivity[74]. The Abbasids (750-1258 CE) resorted to indentured labor from the region, supplemented by imported slave labor from East Africa, to manually remove surface salt sediments. The cruel forced labor led to the great slave revolt of the Zanj (from Zanzibar) that was eventually repressed savagely[75].
Despite Baghdad’s eventual bloody victory the long lasting civil war led to the destruction of the intricate network of dykes, levies, and canals that depended on constant maintenance and manual dredging. As a result, the once prosperous region fell into a long agricultural decline, and with it the Abbasid state itself. The Mongol invasion in the 13th century sealed the fate of the region’s large-scale irrigation works. By the late Safavid period (1501-1736 CE), an area that had once been a center of prospering cities and vast agricultural estates often operated on coerced labor, had become a distant periphery, only nominally controlled by the capital Isfahan. Dezful, Shushtar, Ahvaz, Askar Mokram, and Basra, declined to small towns and villages or disappeared altogether as viable urban centers. The broken irrigation network led to the permanent flooding of the lowlands and the formation of the great swamps and marshes of southern Iran and Iraq, where many of the slaves and refugees from the great repressions of the 9th and 10th centuries and subsequent incessant warfare took permanent refuge. As a consequence of these historical changes other modes of economic subsistence and social organization had taken hold in the province’s changed demographic and ecological landscape[76]. By the 16th century when the Safavids encouraged the large scale migration of Shi’a tribes from the Arabian Peninsula to settle the plains of Khuzestan as a bulwark against their rivals the Sunni Ottomans, the ecology and agrarian patterns of the entire region had been altered, along with the historic name of the province that had changed to Arabistan. In southwestern Khuzestan, the large-scale irrigated grain production estates disappeared, replaced by small-scale rain-fed subsistence agriculture along with limited irrigated rice, legumes, and vegetable productions as cash crops in the proximity of rivers[77]. Reeds from the expanding marshlands became raw material for housing construction, fuel, and winter fodder for the water buffalos, probably an import from India. Seasonal pastoralism and date farming along the rivers became more significant in the economy, especially in the lower reaches of Karun and Shatt al-Arab, relying on the sea tides of the Persian Gulf to raise the river water levels in the shallow and highly silted delta[78]. Thus, although to European observers thinking in terms of commercial agriculture production for consumption through the market, the land may have appeared as unused, unchanged, uncultivated and empty; the reality was socially and historically far more complicated. The region’s landscape and population had changed constantly as a result of its entanglement with larger global as well as internal currents, but it could not be categorized as “an empty land and a people without history”, until required so by the demands of oil capitalism and nation state development. Once oil had been discovered and petroleum became a global strategic resource that required the assemblage of a vast complex of social, technical, and human infrastructure, it became negligent to allow such abundant resources as oil, water, pasture, and fertile fallow land to go to ‘waste’ by ignorant and lazy natives. As a result, the development of these resources became a matter of historical responsibility to the grand and abstract ideas of scientific progress and welfare for all[79]. These are the themes that underlay the development of the oil habitus in Khuzestan, and to which I will return to in chapters 3, 6, and 7. In the next section I will briefly discuss the role of the middle class professional experts who were the main authors of this narrative, and were instrumental in the consolidation of the oil complex.

Notes :

68. Eric Wolf, Europe and People Without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982). For the recurring theme in various reincarnations in frontier settler colonialism, such as Israel or the French in Morocco and Algeria, or the American West see Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (New York: Verso, 2003), 21–50; Maxime Rodinson, Israel, a ColonialSettler State? (New York: Pathfinder Press, 2001); Will Swearingen, Moroccan Mirages: Agrarian Dreams and Deceptions, 1912-1986 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987); Pierre Bourdieu and Abdelmalek Sayyad, Le Déracinement: La Crise de l’Agriculture Traditionnelle en Algérie (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1964); Worster, Rivers of Empire; Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis; ibid. On the fortified geography created as a consequence of this coercive colonial framing see Eyal Weizman,
Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (London: Verso, 2007). The adoption of the theme of empty land by Iranian nationalism is discussed by Kashani-Sabet, Frontier Fictions.

69. Prominent and selective examples of this orientalist literature covering Khuzestan include George Nathaniel Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question (London: Elibron, 2005 [1892]), Vol.2, 268–396; Ella Sykes, Through Persia on a Side Saddle (Piscataway, New Jersey: Georgias Press, 2008 [1903]); Percy Sykes, Ten Thousand Miles in Persia: Or, Eight Years in Iran (London: John Murray, 1902), 239–260; Baron Clement Augustus Gregory Peter Louis de Bode, Travels in Luristan and Arabistan, 2 vols. (London: J.Madden & Co., 1845); Austen Henry Layard, Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia, Including a Residence among the Bakhtiyari and Other Wild Tribes Before the Discovery of Nineveh, 2 vols. (London: J. Murray, 1887); Vita Sackville-West, Twelve Days in Persia: Across the Mountains with the Bakhtiyari Tribe (London: Tauris Parke, 2009 [1928]); Merian C Cooper, Grass (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1925); Arnold Talbot Wilson, Persian Gulf (London: Allen & Unwin, 1954); Arnold T Wilson, SW Persia; A Political Officer’s Diary 1907-1914 (London: Oxford University Press, 1941); Edmonds, East and West of Zagros; Travel, War and Politics in Persia and Iraq 1913-1921.
70. See Kaveh Ehsani, “Bohran-e Ab, Bohran-e Abadan [Water crisis/Abadan in Crisis],” no. 27 (2000): 162–72; Kaveh Ehsani, “Tabar Shenasi-e Tarh-haye Bozorg-e Tose’eh dar Iran-e Mo’aser (Genealogy of large scale development projects in contemporary Iran),” Goftogu, no. 54 (2009): 113–32; Kaveh Ehsani, “Tajaddod va Mohandesi-ye Ejtema’ei; Negahi beh Tajrobeh Abadan va Masjed Soleyman,”
Goftogu, no. 25 (1998): 9–45; Kaveh Ehsani, “Rural Society and Agricultural Development in PostRevolution Iran: The First Two Decades.,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 15, no. 1 (2006); Ehsani, “Sweet Dreams; Sugarcane and the Politics of Development in Pre and Post- Revolution Iran”; Kaveh Ehsani, “Review essay: ‘Omran-e Khouzestan’; edited by Gholamreza Afkhami.,” Iran Nameh 13 (1999): 403–10; Goodell, The Elementary Structures of Political Life.

71. Elizabeth Ness MacBean Ross, A Lady Doctor in Bakhtiyari Land (London: L. Parsons, 1921), 22, 32.
72. Harvey, “Population, Resources, and the Ideology of Science.”

73. I should emphasize that a geographic history is meant to be different from a political or social history. Here I am merely sketching out the longue durée of the material landscape and dynamics of demographic change as a result of long-term regional and global connections.
74. See Robert McC Adams, “Agriculture and Urban Life in Early Southwestern Iran,” Science 136, no. 3511 (1962): 109–22; Robert McC Adams, Theodore E. Downing, and McGuire Gibson, eds.,
Irrigation’s Impact on Society, Anthropological Papers of the University of Arizona, no. 25 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1974); Peter Christensen, The Decline of Iranshahr: Irrigation and Environments in the History of the Middle East, 500 B.C. to A.D. 1500 (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press : University of Copenhagen, 1993); Gholamreza Kouross, ed., Ab va Fann-e Abyari dar Iran-e Bastan, 1971; Andrew M. Watson, Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World: The Diffusion of Crops and Farming Techniques, 700-1100 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
75. Alexandre Popović, The Revolt of African Slaves in Iraq in the 3rd/9th Century (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1999).
76. See the remarkable orientalist travelogue of Wilfred Thesiger, Marsh Arabs: Seven Years with the Primitive Tribesmen of a Watery World (London: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1964); admittedly a guilty pleasure!

77. Haj Mirza Abd-al Ghaffar Najm-al Molk, Safarnameh Khuzestan beh Zamimeh Ketabcheh Dastoure Ma’muriat-e Khouzestan va Gozaresh-e Barresiha-ye Ân Saman (Tehran: Anjoman-e Asar va Mafakher-e Farhangi, 1962); Abd-al Ghaffar ibn-e Ali Mohammad Najm-al Dowleh, Safarnameh Dovvom-e Najm-al Dowleh be Khouzestan; beh Peyvast-e Ketabcheh-ye Dastour-al Amal-e Nasser-al Din Shah dar Khosous-e Safar-e Aval beh Khouzestan (Tehran: Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies, 2007); John Gordon Lorimer, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia, 6 vols. (Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, Eng.: Archive Editions, 1986); Ann K S Lambton, Landlord and Peasant in Persia (London: IB Tauris, 1991).

78. See Mostafa Azkia and Kaveh Ehsani, “Abiyari dar Ramhormoz Part 1 (Social Aspects of Irrigation in Khuzestan),” Ketab-e Tose’eh, no. 2 (1990): 107–12; Mostafa Azkia and Kaveh Ehsani, “Abiyari dar Ramhormoz Part 2 (Social Aspects of Irrigation in Khuzestan),” Ketab-e Tose’eh, no. 3 (1992): 96–107. This analysis is based on my 18 months of fieldwork on agrarian society and rural change in Khuzestan between 1989-1992.
79. An autobiographical note: This is not meant as a romantic or anti-modernist and anti-western critique. Working as a regional planner on post-war reconstruction of rural Khuzestan between 19891992, I found myself thinking and practicing within the same parameters and methodology I am subjecting to critical analysis here. As a development planner, seeing through the gaze of state priorities, I was evaluating local land use north of Ahvaz along the Karun River, to prepare the ground the country’s largest agrarian project in history, a cluster of 7 giant sugar cane plantations to replace subsistence farming and seasonal pastoralism over 80. thousand hectares of what appeared to state planners such as myself and my colleagues, as wasted and negligently underused land. In fact, the land was constantly used, but not for commercial purposes, or mass production for the market. See Ehsani, “Sweet Dreams; Sugarcane and the Politics of Development in Pre and Post- Revolution Iran”; Kaveh Ehsani, “Rural Society and Agricultural Development in Post-Revolution Iran: The First Two Decades.,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 15, no. 1 (2006).


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